Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Woman Who Lived – Tony’s Spoiler-Free Review


After first viewing of The Woman Who Lived, I shrugged at Tom, the Northern half of the Satellite Five crew. “Worst of the series so far?” I asked.

Tom thought about it. “Probably the worst of the series so far…but still great,” he amended.

That seems pretty fair, on reflection.

While The Girl Who Died started off with comedy and developed into an object lesson in the flaw of the Twelfth Doctor, so keen to remember how the Doctor behaves that he’s ready to go beyond all rules and all authority to save himself some emotional anguish and do what he thinks is the right thing, The Woman Who Lived for the most part shows the consequences of that action, and the Doctor’s refusal to alleviate the pressure and the pain he’s inflicted. But in contrast to the linear building of tension in The Girl Who Died, The Woman Who Lived puts most of its dramatic oomph into its early sections to show that pressure and that pain, meaning there’s a sense of fizzle out towards the end. That’s in no way to minimize the impact of those early scenes, which punch hard, but writer Catherine Tregenna chooses to pace her story with a cheering victory followed by not one but two quiet scenes, which have a tendency to let the impact and the point of the story dribble out as we move towards the end.

In some respects, there’s a synchronicity between the storytelling structure of The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived – the alien threat is a bit naff and we never get a particularly clear idea of who they are or what they’re about, but having the alien to defeat serves to get the Doctor into conversations that make him confront himself and his own actions. What’s different about the episodes is the power of that confrontation, which feels lacking in The Woman Who Lived, possibly due to the lack of Clara’s thorny influence in the second episode. When faced only with the direct product of his interference and the pain it has caused, the Doctor can fall back into a more traditional mode, judging the use people make of the life they have, waxing lyrical about the life of a mayfly species like humanity and more or less acting like a slightly grumpier Clarence from It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s a scene in a chimney where Tregenna tries to push the barbs of the scenario home, but the Doctor being accused by someone else is always less effective than the Doctor accusing himself, because part of us wants to immediately leap to his defence when he’s attacked by someone else, and that’s what happens here. The power of the scene never entirely hits home.

That said, there are curiosity-hooks inserted here that hint that this two-parter may at some point have an as-yet-missing third and middle part which involves some terrible day of reckoning. Imagine losing the most precious thing in the world – and then try imagining what would be worse than that. That’s a curiosity-hook and a half, and it makes us wonder about the structure of this series.
Too often though, a sense of danger in this episode is missing, even from scenes which should be brimming with tension – with the Doctor and the ‘woman who lived’ on the same quest, a scene with them discovered during its pursuit should be tense and thrilling, but feels more like drawing-room farce, with lots of hiding behind sofas and predictable clumsiness.

Likewise, there’s a human thread here that feels fairly shoehorned in, involving a standoff that dissolves into banter more or less because it can, only to gain significance at the end – again, the tension is squandered to  deliver instead the feeling of a pot-boiling period romance, overpowering the opportunity to develop much in the way of an emotional attachment to this thread, though one good thing about it is that Rufus Hound is nearly unrecognisable until close to the end, and only then because his character begins reeling off appallingly bad jokes. Intended to be a lesson in living life to the fullest, Hound’s character is never really given any depth, and so the lesson feels like it falls too flat for its purposes.  

The alien threat here has a solidly Classic Who feel, in the vein of later Tom Baker villains. It’s not quite a Nimon or a Mandrell, but it’s in that sort of league, and its story-arc is sadly predictable – and indeed predicted by the Doctor the moment they meet, and then repeatedly throughout the episode, meaning when the Doctor’s predictions come true, there’s only one character who seems at all surprised, and we wonder how they manage it when the signs have all been so pedantically pointing that way. That said, the alien is rendered in a 21st century way, and it brings a certain amount of sci-fi fairy tale to proceedings that otherwise watch like a period bodice-ripper. What’s more, it allows a cheeky reference back to a Sylvester McCoy story (as well as a David Tennant one). Our guess is it probably looked great written down or drawn, but that it’ll amount to a generally quite forgettable on-screen villain that, a year from now, people will struggle to place in its story.

The woman who lived, as a character, feels a little overwritten, with a flourishing “Yes, it is me!” feeling almost like it belongs on a pantomime stage, and a vocal trick stolen straight from an episode of historical comedy Blackadder, and the climactic revelation she comes to about her emotional involvement in the lives of peoples feels like it breaks a cardinal rule of effective storytelling (show, don’t tell) when she announces “I do care – oh my God, I do!” – to the point that ironically, we don’t believe her, or care if she cares.
The accommodation she and the Doctor come to at the end though is genuinely intriguing, and ripe for future appearances and fiction. If Torchwood exists to protect the Earth while the Doctor’s away in time and space, it feels like what’s created at the end of this episode is the equivalent of Torchwood’s Peace Corps, and the reveal at the very end of the episode suggests the hastening of the end of Clara’s time with the Doctor, whatever she herself may have to say about it.

Overall, The Woman Who Lived may well be the weakest story this series. It’s probably fair to call it the weakest story so far. But, as Tom said, it’s the weakest, but still great – the potential that’s pregnant in a few of its scenes to take the world of Doctor Who forward into a new phase gives it enough intrigue to make us want to know more, and the emotional impact we see the Doctor has inflicted on the woman who lived is sufficiently heart-rending as to still deliver a hard core to the story, even if much of the rest of it feels predictable and sentimental by turns. If this is as bad as episodes get this series, we’ll still have had one of the strongest series in years. The Woman Who Lived is still light years ahead of stories like Time Heist, Journey To The Centre of the Tardis, The Rings of Akhaten, The Rebel Flesh, The Hungry Earth, Fear Her or Love and Monsters. We’re more in the realms of Vincent and the Doctor or The Girl In The Fireplace here – naff aliens, interesting humans, and fascinating consequences to the choices the Doctor makes. While hindsight may be less kind to The Woman Who Lived, right here and now, it feels like it still delivers the mix of Classic Who in a New Who style that has marked out this series so far - simply skewed towards the more predictable end of the Classic spectrum.
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